Fire & Life Safety: Game-Changers

Jan. 3, 2014
Trends and issues that will impact the fire alarm industry in 2014

Happy 2014! The New Year is a time for all of us to look toward the future, and for me to discuss new trends and issues for the fire alarm industry. Since the rest of the year I have to stick to strict facts and code numbers, the opportunity to gaze into my crystal ball to simply offer my opinions seems like a breeze!

Remember, beyond these trends and issues, it is prudent for all fire alarm installing companies to educate themselves about the newest requirements and provisions in fire alarm standards. Looking forward to changes ahead and proactively anticipating how your company will address these issues will position you as an industry leader.

Issue: More Programming Capabilities

While providing real freedom to enable devices to operate in any number of ways, the programming capabilities of control units and associated devices also allow more room for error. Software changes made to an output may result in unintended operations, or even the failure of required functions. For example, mapping all smoke detector outputs to the NACs may reset the required function of a lobby smoke detector to recall elevators to the correct level. For the factory to provide all the programming options they believe we may possibly ever need, it requires a level of complexity that may allow unintended changes to seemingly unrelated functions go unnoticed.

I am not familiar with all programming software, and possibly some already incorporate some of what I will suggest here, but I think that all software should include a partition between global and individual points. In this way, if a box denoting “Elevator Recall Functions” were checked, this section could not be affected by other global programmable functions. This could prevent, for example, mistakenly enabling a manual pull box to activate an elevator recall function.

Similarly, un-checking certain key boxes as programming options, would cause a pop-up warning. For example, a warning box could pop up telling the programmer that “un-checking this feature means the Elevator Recall Functions will no longer be provided.” Required functions like these should be protected from inadvertent changes.

Warnings should appear not just on-screen, but in the printed report as well. A warning such as, “This device has no output associated with it” should be followed by another pop-up that asks, “Are you sure?” Some capabilities should be blocked from programming, such as the ability to “cross-zone” two smoke detectors that already have been programmed to provide alarm verification upon activation. A pop-up should be provided for any operation that is prohibited by NFPA 72, like the one mentioned above, so that a technician doesn’t look for a work-around.

Other software warnings should be mandatory, such as, “while this control unit is capable of silencing the horns while allowing the strobes to remain flashing, the DOJ/ADA has ruled that this is not allowed where public notification is performed.” Being given a lot of control panel programming options is like being given a lot of rope — insert your own “hang yourself” or “tangled mess” analogy here.

Trend: CO Detection & Combo Units

When your state’s new residential (one- and two-family home) building code is adopted, be sure to look for any new CO requirements in the code in the section following the paragraph requiring smoke alarms. For commercial buildings, the Building Code will require Carbon monoxide alarms in Group ‘I’ or ‘R’ occupancies which contain “a fuel-burning appliance” or are part of “a building which has an attached garage” (not ventilated parking structures and open parking).  

Since “carbon monoxide detection systems which include CO detectors and audible notification appliances” are permitted, I expect the use of combination smoke/CO detectors will become more prevalent, in lieu of providing separate detectors for each. This application can give the professional alarm company an edge.

Issue: Paperwork

The scramble for alarm companies to keep on top of all the new paperwork required to be supplied to system owners is expanding in the 2013 edition of NFPA 72. Additionally, the 2012 Building/Fire Codes require that monitoring service providers notify the responding agency (i.e. fire department) whenever a customer’s monitoring services are terminated.

More significantly, the 2013 edition of NFPA 72 requires that commercial fire alarm system owners provide an affidavit identifying and verifying the party responsible for the inspections and testing of that system annually to their AHJ. This affidavit must also include the responsibilities — including lists of what will be tested and what will not — and qualifications of the parties doing the work, and be signed by the service provider (Qualifications are delineated in the Annex of 72 and deserve a second look).

Practically speaking, our customers will not be aware of the new requirement when this edition of the code gets adopted in your jurisdiction. So it will be up to the alarm company to start this process by drafting and signing a letter, then delivering this to their customers with whom they have Annual Test Inspection agreements, and include all this information. And at the same time it will behoove the alarm company to inform their customer with whom they do NOT have signed T&I contracts, of this new requirement, and include with that notification, a quote to provide the required services.

While not easily or universally enforced, much unpleasantness will ensue whenever the owner and local fire official start asking why these services are not being provided.

Issue: Two-Line Digital Alarm Communicator Transmitters (DACTs)

The 2013 NFPA 72 is making it difficult to continue installing two-line DACTs as the communication means for reporting commercial fire alarm signals. For example, the supervised communication test signal requirement in the 2013 Edition was increased to once every six hours (four times as often as the previous 24-hour requirement). That’s assuming you are allowed to use a second phone line.

With this new edition, you must first get permission from the local code authority before connecting a second phone line as the DACT’s backup method. In order to gain this approval, you will have to explain that a newer type of second technology (i.e. data network/Internet or cellular signal) is not available at that site and your only remaining choice is to use a second phone line — good luck.

Trend: Mass Notification Systems

Non-fire systems are increasingly being incorporated with commercial fire alarm systems; however, I am skeptical about the number of Mass Notification Systems that will materialize since they are not required by code. Occupancies using these systems will typically remain the domain of only the largest contractors. This means that the majority of alarm companies will never perform this type of installation, even though the entire National Fire Alarm Code was re-named, radically revised, and re-arranged to include these extensive systems.

Simple emergency voice evacuation systems (EVAC), on the other hand, I predict will continue to grow in use and local acceptance. This is largely due to the fact that building owners are now allowed to use the speakers installed with these systems, for regular announcements, paging and background music — without having to get special permission from the local code official. All new schools (E-Educational buildings K – 12, having more than 30 persons) will be required to use an EVAC system to provide for fire and other emergency notifications. Unless modified by your state, this new voice EVAC requirement will be applied to all ‘schools’ seeking a building permit under the 2012 International Building Code.

Greg Kessinger is SD&I’s fire alarm and codes expert and a regular contributor. Email him your FLS questions at [email protected].